Composed in Leipzig, 1724, for the First Sunday after the Epiphany, BWV 154 uses as its starting point the Gospel reading from Luke 2: 41-52. Going to Jerusalem for Passover, Jesus stayed for three days after His parents left. They found Him in the Temple courts -- sitting among the teachers and amazing them. Jesus said to His parents, "Didn't you know I had to be in My Father's House?"
The tenor aria with which the cantata begins is loaded with musical imagery – that of isolation, loss and searching. This is especially apparent in the chromatic and disjunct bass line. Set as a ground bass, it is nearly twelve tone in construction, using nine of the twelve notes available, and therefore lacks any clear harmonic direction. The violin and tenor line, although still chromatic, is slightly more coherent. The brief tenor recitative that follows, commences with an ascending phrase that marks a question----where will I find my Jesus, He who can show the path I wish to follow? It ends with the assertion that nothing could be as troubling as losing Him, but Bach offers a ray of hope that leads us to the chorale. Found in Part 2 of the Saint Matthew Passion, our chorale is simply harmonized, yet text of the verse is not yet fully comforting.
The voice of the soul in the pastoral alto aria brings no immediate relief. A pair of oboes d’amore takes the obligato, but the standard continuo line is completely absent – the organ (would have probably been a harpsichord) simply doubles the upper strings. The reason for this is ambiguous, although Bach scholar Alfred Dürr suggests that it implies ‘innocence’. The bass arioso quotes the Luke 2: 49 where Jesus asks his parents: are you not aware that I am about my Father’s business? The bass declaims his words to a melody that is constantly passed between singer and continuo.
The long tenor recitative that follows is the cantata’s turning point from doubt to faith, and thus sets the stage for the joyful alto/tenor duet. Textually organized in three couplets, the music follows course, clearly delineating the text to the listener. Bach represents the joy of finding Jesus in three distinct ways: 1) three note joy motive on off beats in the continuo that are echoes in the second violin and second oboe d’amore; 2) sustained notes on ‘wohl’; and 3) collective joy in the parallel thirds of the alto and tenor. Bach intensifies the elation in the third couplet by shifting to a brisk 3/8 in which alto, tenor and continuo all play an equal role. The opening ritornello returns to close out the movement, binding together the themes of spiritual delight and steadfastness. The final chorale, a direct harmonization of “Meinem Jesum lab ich nicht”, employs a walking bass line representing faithful will and Jesus’ omnipresence.
© Ryan Turner